On August 28, 2005, America was attacked by an act of nature. We don’t need a Katrina Commission to tell us that a Katrina was likely to occur and that we should have provided reasonable security to preserve life and property in her wake. New Orleans’ below sea level vulnerability had been recognized for decades by the local and federal authorities responsible for emergency preparedness. It was well known that the levees would not hold in a serious storm, and they didn’t.
We have been hit many times before by terrifying acts of nature: We have survived other hurricanes, earthquakes and tornadoes that have inflicted billions of dollars in damage, serious injuries and death. Katrina, took an estimated 1,577 lives from the storm itself and the criminal conduct of some members of the community; it has cost by one estimate $150 billion over 2 years. The amount is comparable on a monthly basis with that of the war in Iraq. And like the Iraq war we have been unable, or unwilling, to take control of the devastation and reverse it.
We have tallied the number of souls who perished on 9/11 at 2,973, excluding the 19 hijackers. The actual dollar cost of the destruction nation-wide on that day is still just an estimate; the cost to New York City alone is $95 billion. There are many explanations offered for why we didn’t do a better job in protecting life and property when Katrina struck given what we should have learned from the terrorist attacks four years earlier, and the massive destruction caused by hurricane Andrew in 1992, a storm that caused $25 billion in damages to south Florida and killed 4 people in Dade County.
Despite Katrina having wreaked unprecedented destruction there has been no sense of national urgency to rebuild what has been destroyed despite the deaths of more than half the number killed in the terrorist acts of 9/11, and the huge financial cost sustained by the Louisiana community and shared across the nation. That has not been the case with 9/11 where the nation has mobilized to see to it that the events of that day are never repeated. While it is true that we are unable to change the course of natural calamities we can mitigate their damages with better emergency response planning, improved building codes and constant training. Similarly, we are unable to bring an end to acts of terrorism but we have not hesitated to work to identify its sources, measure its potential violence at home, prepare our police and military to combat it and train our private sector organizations and members of the public to help in its prevention and response.
There are multiple reasons why we react to acts of terrorism with greater commitment than we do to deadly acts of nature including our sense of national pride and the need to defend our honor. Man-made acts of terrorism, by their sudden violence, leave us at first feeling helpless in their wake. In time however we are filled with a resolve to punish the perpetrator and to ensure that we are not caught by surprise again.
By focusing on the latter to the exclusion of the former however, we may in fact increase our vulnerability to reasonably foreseeable risks of death, injury and loss. Compared with losses sustained at home from natural calamities, the risk of harm from terrorism in the United States remains remote despite the repeated warnings that such acts are imminent. It is therefore necessary that focus constantly on protecting life and property from natural disasters with the same diligence we are now showing toward the potential for acts of terrorism.
This is by no means to say that we should not take the potential for homeland terrorism seriously or that we should reduce the steps to identify and prevent such crimes or decrease our preparedness for emergency response. It is however prudent that we not focus on the one to the exclusion of the other, especially since the protocols upon which we rely for combating terrorism are for the most part the same as employed in training for and responding to violent acts of nature. In both instances immediate care for the injured, maintaining contact with family, continuing normal activities and building defenses against future attacks require immediate implementation.
To protect America from the harm caused by calamitous events regardless of the source, the public and private sectors must not fail to recognize that both must continue to mobilize all Americans to become “first responders” and contribute their skills and abilities to protecting and rebuilding communities that suffer disasters from any source.